Iowa Judge Bars Plan to Purge Noncitizens From Voter Roll

Iowa’s secretary of state was temporarily barred from issuing new rules on purging noncitizens from voter registration rolls by a judge who said the process was likely to create confusion for legitimate voters.

Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican, can’t claim that the public interest justified his use of emergency rule-making procedures governing elections, Polk County District Court Judge Mary Pat Gunderson in Des Moines said, granting a motion for a temporary injunction.

“They have created fear that new citizens will lose their right to vote and/or be charged with a felony, and caused some qualified voters to feel deterred from even registering,” Gunderson said in her 12-page ruling.

The lawsuit is among multiple court battles over voting rules in states, particularly so-called swing states including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where both Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see possible victories.

At least two lawsuits challenging a proposed voter purge are pending in Florida. Voter cases are also under way in Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court is deciding whether to allow to the state to enforce a law requiring voters to have photo identification, which the American Civil Liberties Union has argued was aimed at keeping likely Democratic voters away from the polls.

In Iowa, the ACLU and a Latino rights group sued to prevent Schultz from implementing the rule change, contending it would unfairly affect new citizens. The state said the rules protected these citizens and barring their implementation would create uncertainty over the election.

‘Created Confusion’

Gunderson, an appointee of Republican Governor Terry Branstad, said in her 12-page order that the plaintiffs had shown the rules “created confusion and uncertainty in the voter registration process.”

Gunderson said she wasn’t making a decision on the merits of the lawsuit.

“The court concludes the harm that granting the temporary injunction may prevent outweighs the harm that may result from denying it,” she said in the order received yesterday by attorneys in the case.

Lawyers for the civil rights groups will pursue a permanent injunction barring the rule changes at a hearing yet to be scheduled, Joseph Glazebrook, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said yesterday in a phone interview.

“The state won’t be able to use these rules until after the court rules on the permanent injunction, which will be after the election,” Glazebrook said.

The state could appeal Gunderson’s ruling, he said.

‘Temporary Request’

“We respect the ruling, which the judge noted is on the temporary request only, and is not on the final merits of the case,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said in an e-mailed statement.

“We argued that Secretary Schultz was legally justified in enacting emergency rules because of the compressed timeline he faced at the time he made his decision,” said Miller, a Democrat. “Clearly, the judge disagreed.”

The ACLU and the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa claim that Schultz instituted a new administrative rule in July that would require his office to periodically obtain lists of foreign nationals “from unspecified state and federal agencies and attempt to match those names to voter registration records,” as part of an effort to purge noncitizens from the voting rolls.

Registered Voters

The secretary of state would then send notices to registered voters whose names appeared on one of these lists that they may not be citizens and may be illegally registered to vote, according to the lawsuit.

The voter would have to respond within 14 days to dispute this information, or face being stricken from the eligible voters list, the ACLU lawyers said.

“The public has no way to be sure he’s using accurate, up-to-date voters from Iowa’s voter lists,” Ben Stone, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, said in a statement.

The rules don’t provide obstacles to legitimate voters, lawyers for the state said in court papers.

“Ironically, the emergency rules challenged by the petitioners were promulgated by Secretary Schultz to protect the voting rights of Iowans whose immigration status in the state’s drivers’ license database might be incorrect or out of date,” Miller and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Thompson said in a filing last month.

Attorneys for the state are consulting with Schultz on legal options following the ruling, Miller’s spokesman, Geoff Greenwood, said in an e-mail.

‘Receive Notice’

The rules would “ensure that any affected individual receive notice and a hearing before his/her name is removed from the voter registration records,” the state’s lawyers said. The state also contends the district court has no jurisdiction to order a temporary injunction barring the rules.

The secretary of state issued the rules “without any review by the legislature and without public review,” Glazebrook said yesterday.

Schultz didn’t “make a sufficiently compelling argument that the benefits of implementing the rule through the emergency procedures would outweigh the considerable value of notice and public participation in the adoption process,” Gunderson said.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Foundation v. Schultz, CV 9311, District Court, Polk County, Iowa (Des Moines).

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